Hurricane Irene: Do not underestimate Category 1 storm, FEMA warns
Federal officials are warning residents in Irene's path not to underestimate the storm after it was downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane as it made landfall Saturday morning.
"If you’re in a hurricane, you're in a hurricane," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a Saturday morning briefing at FEMA headquarters. "We anticipate heavy rain, potential flooding and significant power outages throughout the area of the storm, which means all up and down the Eastern Seaboard."
As Irene pounded the North Carolina coast with hurricane-force winds of about 85 miles per hour, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate warned that the large, slow-moving storm could produce dangerous tornadoes and heavy rain.
"When we talk about category of hurricane, that does not explain all the risk," Fugate said. Category designations indicate the risk from high winds and storm surge. But rainfall and tornadoes are risks that "are not tied to the category of storm," Fugate said.
Tornados "will not be on the ground very long," he said. "But they can still be very devastating."
Also of concern: Conditions at nuclear power plants along the Eastern Seaboard. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Saturday dispatched staff to 11 plants along the East Coast and announced new measures to check that the plants' reactors were protected by backup power systems, NRC spokesman David McIntyre said.
Several inspectors were sent to affected plants and they -- along with a team at NRC headquarters -- were checking safety systems and making plans to closely monitor the facilities during the storm.
As it continues to cross North Carolina's eastern coast, Irene is expected reach Norfolk, Va., by Saturday evening. The National Hurricane Center projects that the storm may weaken slightly but will remain "near hurricane strength" as it approaches New England.
A wind gust at 87 miles per hour was measured at Cape Hatteras, N.C, and Norfolk Naval Air Station recently reported gusts of 63 miles per hour.
President Obama visited FEMA's Washington headquarters Saturday afternoon, after receiving an earlier briefing from Napolitano and Fugate. According to a White House statement on the briefing, Obama "reiterated that we know that this storm's impacts will continue to be felt throughout the weekend and that we still have work ahead of us to support potentially impacted states and communities."
-- Kim Geiger and Tom Hamburger in Washington
Photo: American Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern, left, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, center, and FEMA Director Craig Fugate, right, listen to a forecast of Hurricane Irene during a news conference at FEMA headquarters Saturday in Washington. Credit: Luis M. Alvarez/ Associated Press